Jul 17, 2017
IFTA tour shows latest in fruit growing techniques

The first day of the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) 2017 Michigan Study Tour kicked off at Wittenbach Orchards, founded when Fredrick Wittenbach moved to Michigan from Switzerland in 1899.

The stop kicked of a look at orchard operations in the Belding and south Fruit Ridge areas.

Ed Wittenbach joined the farm and took over in 1962, and has been a fixture in the Michigan tree fruit industry ever since. His son, Mike, manages the operation today, farming over 750 acres as Wittenbach Orchards. Mike’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, joined the farm after graduating from Michigan State University in 2016.

Wittenbach Orchards has over 200 acres of apples. Orchard replacement is a priority for the operation. Five percent of the orchard is replaced each year, and the Wittenbachs are slowly chipping away at removing old standard varieties.

Tall spindle is Mike’s preferred planting system. Other orchard establishment irrigation priorities for Wittenbach Orchards include irrigation and frost protection. Wittenbach Orchards plants solid blocks interspersed with Mt. Blanc. Mt. Everest and Indian summer crabapple varieties. The Wittenbachs prefer blocks of a single apple cultivar for management and economic reasons.

Managed varieties, including SweetTango, were showcased by Mike during the IFTA tour. Elizabeth talked about fertigation and precision cropload management.

Tom Rasch & Son Orchards is entering its third generation. Tom Rasch Jr. joined Tom Sr. and has been the primary manager/owner since the 1980s. At nearly 1,000 feet above seas level, the orchards have weathered many frosts with the help of numerous frost protection devices. Overhead irrigation is applied to the mostly sandy loam soil. Jonathan and Red Delicious are being phased out for more productive varieties such as SweetTango and Gala.

Root pruning and scoring are two of the most extreme yet essential tools the farm has embraced over the decades to keep vigorous and biennial varieties in check. Some years, half of the farm has bene root pruned. Kyle, Devin and Eric, the next generation at Tom Rasch & Son Orchards, continue to tweak and experiment with the systems in place and have influenced many big limbs to be removed. Kyle Rasch displayed the use of reflector foil as a between-row groundcover to enhance sun accessibility in the tree canopy.

Chris, a fourth-generation apple grower, and Kim Kropf operate Hart Fruit Farm. Chris talked about early tree establishment, tree training, trellis use and growing Honeycrisp on B-9 rootstock.

Patrick Goodfellow Orchards works with local grower Ryan Kober to maintain an 80,000-tree on-farm nursery. Goodfellow Orchards, now in its fifth generation, is run by Patrick and his wife Laura. They have 200 acres of apples in two counties, Ottawa and Kent. Patrick also is involved in Elite Apple Co. LLC Packing facility that was built in 2013.

Phil Schwallier , his wife, Judy, and their extended family run a commercial apple orchard and farm market (Schwallier’s Country Basket) on the Fruit Ridge near Sparta. They farm 100 acres of apples, rasp berries and pumpkins. Phil is a fifth-generation grower. He joined MSU Extension in 1978.

Phil showed guests his plant growth regulator trials, as well as a netting trial that was upstaged in 2017 by early frost damage.

The tour continues July 17 with a tour of the northern Ridge area and a trip to Lake Michigan.

Gary Pullano, Managing Editor

See more from the IFTA Summer Tour:

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75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
616.887.9008
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